Updated on 09/17/2011 10:09AM

Punishment hardly fits the crime

Email

WASHINGTON - Horse racing's worst scandal is over. The perpetrators of the Breeders' Cup Pick Six fix are going to jail, and the rightful winners are about to receive their money.

Yet the resolution of the case has outraged racing fans almost as much as the original offense. The central figure in the scheme will spend less than a year in a minimum-security federal prison after trying to pull off a multimillion-dollar fraud.

Of the three men involved, Chris Harn was the mastermind and the other two were accomplices. An employee of Autotote, Harn knew the vulnerability of the computer system for handling pick-six wagers; he penetrated his company's computers to alter wagers after four of the Breeders' Cup races had been run. His friends, Derrick Davis and Glen DaSilva, were willing participants, but they were Harn's pawns. Davis, who made headlines when he "won'' $3.1 million on the Breeders' Cup Pick Six, didn't even place the wagers. Harn phoned them into Davis's telephone-betting account.

But when Judge Charles Brieant handed down his sentences last week, he gave Harn the lightest punishment - a term of one year and one day. (Harn will in fact wind up serving about 10 months.) Davis got 37 months and DaSilva 24 months.

To laymen, this seems to be a perverse working of the criminal-justice system. According to the account of the Breeders' Cup scandal in Vanity Fair magazine, "Prosecutors sent out the word: The first man to cooperate would get the lightest sentence." Harn was not only the brains behind the crime, he was smart enough to be the first to cut a deal. But shouldn't the government pressure accomplices to confess so they can punish the real wrongdoer? If someone robs a bank, do prosecutors let him cut a deal and then throw the book at the driver of the getaway car?

The light sentence Brieant imposed on Harn trivializes the offense he committed. The prosecutors, too, acted as if they were dealing with a victimless crime; during the course of the investigation they suggested the money seized after the Breeders' Cup belonged to the government. But Harn and his friends were stealing money from innocent people as surely as if they had robbed them at gunpoint. Had they succeeded, they would have defrauded 78 deserving bettors out of nearly $40,000 apiece.

I wrote last fall about one of those bettors, Woody Zais, a ramp serviceman at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, who made a $32 wager at Laurel Park on the Breeders' Cup Pick Six and picked five winners on one of his tickets.

This was supposed to be the biggest win of his life as a horseplayer, and the notion that somebody was trying to steal $40,000 of his money was certainly no trivial matter to him. When he learned of the punishment for Harn, he said, "It seems like a slap on the wrist.''

Like the other people who picked five winners in the pick six, Zais had to fill out an internal revenue service form to collect his consolation payoff; as a result, racing officials knew who he was and could compensate him. He received his check Monday, and it even included interest that had accrued as the case was being resolved.

One aspect of the case still hasn't been settled. Three weeks before the Breeders' Cup, Harn and DaSilva engaged in a trial run on a pick six at Belmont Park Oct. 5. Harn used the same system that he would apply on the Arlington races - altering wagers after four races had been run - but this fix didn't attract scrutiny because the payoff of $13,070 wasn't so dramatic. Nevertheless, Harn and DaSilva took more than $80,000 out of the pockets of winning bettors. Those people deserve to collect their money, too.

The New York Racing Association has informed the court of this issue so the defendants' remaining assets can be distributed to the pick six winners. "Somehow, we have to get those people paid,'' said NYRA vice president Bill Nader. "We'll find a way to get the money to the rightful winners.''

The racing industry has not always been vigilant about protecting the interest of its customers, but it has acquitted itself well in the aftermath of the Breeders' Cup larceny. At the first sign that the Pick Six payoff looked suspicious, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association issued a public statement urging law-enforcement authorities to investigate. It never tried to deny or whitewash the scandal. The sport has moved aggressively to restore the public's confidence and to ensure its wagering systems are never again compromised.

Even though racing fans may grumble that Harn and his associates won't be spending many years behind bars, the outcome of the Breeders' Cup scandal is certainly more favorable than anyone might have imagined last October.

"The bottom line,'' said Nader, "is this: They didn't get away with it."

(c) 2003, The Washington Post